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Rutgers-sponsored event discusses affordable housing, racial justice

The virtual speaker event “Imagine More: Achieving Safe and Healthy Homes for All" discussed affordable housing in New Jersey in relation to issues such as redlining and exclusionary zoning. – Photo by jay blacks / Unsplash

Last Tuesday, Imagine More: Racial Justice Begins with Us, a virtual speaker series aimed at discussing issues of racial justice, held its third speaker event, “Imagine More: Achieving Safe and Healthy Homes for All.”

The series’ sponsors include Rutgers—New Brunswick’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers—Newark’s The Inclusion Project and the Rutgers Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice.

This event’s speakers included leaders of housing-focused nonprofit organizations such as Reverend Eric Dobson, deputy director of the Fair Share Housing Center, and Gantry Fox, director of operations at Salvation and Social Justice.

The event also featured voices in academia such as Sheryll Cashin, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice at Georgetown University. 

Opening the event, Dobson said that American society was built on white supremacy and though progress has been made with regard to equity, institutional barriers still impact people of color today.

In housing, he said racial discrimination presents itself in practices such as redlining, exclusionary zoning and racially restrictive covenants, all which create segregated neighborhoods that prevent people of color from accessing essential services.

“Where one lives is directly tied to their educational outcome, economic opportunities and health,” he said. “New Jersey has one of the worst racial disparities in the country across almost all of these indicators of success and well-being.”

Dobson said that despite New Jersey’s high rates of racial disparity, the state holds strong laws that prevent discrimination in housing, including the Mount Laurel Doctrine.

The doctrine, the result of a landmark civil rights case involving the township of Mount Laurel attempting to vacate its Black residents from their homes, prohibits exclusionary zoning and requires New Jersey towns to have affordable housing, he said.

Through the Mount Laurel Doctrine, the Fair Share Housing Center has been able to settle more than 330 court cases, Dobson said. 

Additionally, the doctrine has allowed 70,000 affordable homes to be built and will cause more than 50,000 projected affordable housing units to be built in the future, he said.

The event continued with a panel discussion featuring speakers Fox, Dobson and Cashin, who addressed subjects such as redlining.

Cashin said that the first wave of redlining started in the 1930s when Black families who moved to northern cities such as Camden or Newark were segregated into certain areas, which were cut off from government-insured mortgages.

She said this original redlining set in motion the housing discrimination that occurs today when contractors and realtors see individuals living in Black and Brown neighborhoods as risky investments.

Therefore, these individuals must turn to predatory lenders, who offer installment contracts that are designed for people to default on, Cashin said.

She said one potential solution is for governments to prioritize offering fair credit to residents in historically marginalized areas and pursue legal action against predatory lenders such as private equity firms that prey on these individuals.

“If local governments have racial equity policy where they are targeting neighborhoods that are historically preyed upon for fair credit products and outreach, that could help disrupt these long decades of discriminatory behavior,” Cashin said.

When asked what sparks the conversation about affordable housing within the communities, Fox said that first individuals should think about their past experience with discriminatory housing and then recognize their own power.

He said that it is important for communities to embrace their traumas so they can understand their resilience and strength, rather than give in to self-defeat.

“We (do not need to) be afraid of that vulnerability and welcome the opportunity to gather and create synergy with others of like minds and experiences,” Fox said. “Those who haven’t been impacted directly need to realize it could happen to anyone, including them or their loved ones when given a change in circumstances.”

The discussion was then opened to audience questions, comments and concerns, where the panel addressed how individuals can advocate for equitable housing. 

Dobson said that when individuals notice new development being installed in their community, they should ask questions about its accessibility and whether it follows state housing discrimination laws.

“Too many of us have accepted the way things are opposed to living the way things should be,” he said. “We believe in the American dream, we just want to have a fair share of it.”

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